Rare Diseases

Charting the course of PLS and PMA

Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS) and Progressive Muscular Atrophy (PMA) are two rare variants of the disease ALS. Normally, ALS affects the upper motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, as well as the lower motor neurons that send signals from the spinal cord directly to muscles. PLS and PMA are different because PLS only affects the upper motor neurons, and PMA only affects the lower motor neurons. It’s an important distinction for patients to be told about because the prognosis is less severe in these conditions.  On average, survival in ALS is typically reported to be 2-5 years, whereas for patients with PMA it’s more like 5-10 years and for PLS it’s even longer (often several decades). ALS itself is a rare condition, affecting some 30,000 people in the United States at any one time.  PLS and PMA each represent approximately 5% of the overall ALS community, so there’s approximately 1,500 patients with each condition in the U.S at any given time.  In April 2008, PatientsLikeMe added the ability for members of our ALS community to change their diagnosis to these rare conditions.  To date, we now have 182 patients with PLS and 270 with PMA. This is truly …

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Rare Diseases: Well-Done Online

There are rare diseases, and there are rare diseases. Here at PatientsLikeMe our first community was built for patients with ALS (estimated US Prevalence: 30,000), and in common with our other neurological communities there is a familiar list of challenges: low public awareness, little funding for research, and a lack of adequate treatments. However, over the past year or so I’ve really had my eyes opened to the differences between “rare” and what you might call “super-rare” conditions, such as Devic’s neuromyelitis optica. Nobody really knows how many people Devic’s affects as it is frequently confused with MS, but there are probably only a few thousand patients with this condition in the world. That’s why we’re incredibly proud that our Devic’s community currently has 136 registered patients sharing health data with one another; that’s more than 5 times larger than the largest study I’ve seen on the condition in the scientific literature (which included collaborators from around the world in seven specialist centers over the course of several years). I was privileged to be invited to speak at the annual meeting of Eurordis (The European Organization for Rare Diseases) in Athens, Greece, to meet with some of the leading online …

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Sharing Is A Right As Well

We do not live our lives alone. We live our lives in collaboration with others. We communicate our needs and our goals, and together we work to achieve them. This is exceptionally true for families and individuals dealing with illness. Whether you’re dealing with depression, or pain, or perhaps the fear and stigma of HIV, or the impairment that comes from MS, Parkinson’s or ALS, what helps us the most is when those around us reach out and share their support and advice. You would think that your ability to share would be as much your right as speech, but is it? It’s not clear that is true in healthcare today, nor is it clear that such a right will be protected tomorrow. Privacy is also a right – a right to not share what you do not want shared. It’s a fair and just expectation that the doctors and clinicians you employ to support you in your illness will not share your information without your permission. Today, I fear that privacy has become much more than a right; it has become a goal. When that happens, people begin to find ways to make it difficult to share in the …

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A new gene for ALS: What sharing your genetics could mean for research

In today’s issue of the journal Science two papers describe the discovery of a new gene for ALS (you can read the abstracts here and here). Around 90% of ALS cases are sporadic, i.e. we don’t know what causes them, but for 5-10% of patients the disease runs in their family (known as familial ALS, FALS). Until today, there was only one major causative gene that we knew about, called SOD1, which accounted for 20% of familial cases. Today’s new discovery of the gene FUS (also known as ALS6) accounts for an additional 3-5% of familial cases and was the result of an international collaboration between scientists in Boston, London, and Sydney. This is very exciting for research because the more we know about what causes ALS, the better our chances of finding an effective treatment through better understanding of the pathways involved in motor neuron degeneration. Here at PatientsLikeMe, we’ve recently upgraded our ALS platform to capture data on familial ALS patients’ known genetic mutations. The goal is to help familial ALS patients find another patient like them, and to enhance understanding of the phenotype of each mutation, e.g. if different types of mutation cause a faster or slower …

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Structuring and Presenting the Patients’ Perspective at AMIA

PatientsLikeMe members share health data on the site adding their own individual-level health experience to a repository of structured outcome data. The result? An unprecedented data set that informs medical conversation not only within the patient community but also with the larger scientific one. Earlier this fall, the venue for this conversation was the annual meeting of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). Typically, AMIA is a forum for medical researchers to discuss clinical-facing informatics projects like electronic medical records, doctor decision-support systems, and standards. This year, the event agenda included its first-ever panel on patient collaboration, with PatientsLikeMe presenting on how our members use informatics systems to spearhead original research.I presented a paper co-authored with Michael Massagli chronicling the activity on the ALS site regarding the site-based evaluation of Lithium. Questions about the paper were enthusiastic and challenging as medical researchers contemplated the full implications of patients conducting research outside of the healthcare system. The most provocative comment came from Danny Sands of Cisco who introduced the possibility that while he saw the value of PatientsLikeMe, we may also be “polluting clinical trials” – when patients with rare diseases take experimental treatments before being enrolled in (his) randomized clinical …

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